I’m having a hard time structuring this post. For one, my trip was long. I spent 45 days traveling through Europe. It’s hard to condense that into 1,500 words or less. Secondly, I am not sure how this post can help anyone budget their very own Europe trip.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend that most people can afford an extended holiday, much less one that costs about five figures. Other people have done better than me at budgeting a backpacking trip to Europe. And at some really unbelievably low numbers.
But I can honestly say my European trip was one of the most life-changing experiences that I’ve had. For that reason alone, justifying the price tag just comes naturally to me. On the other hand, would someone else have a similar encounter as I did? I don’t know. I really lucked out, so I can’t say for sure that it’s replicable. When it came time to sit down and write this, I struggle to think how this can benefit anybody reading it.
But I really, really, really want to talk about my trip. Like so badly. Lol.
So, I’m just going to wing it.
Traveling to Europe was probably my most financially irresponsible decision to date. While I had a savings cushion, my employment status was in flux, so I didn’t have a steady income stream. With commitments like rent and car installments to worry about, taking a huge chunk out of my savings to travel for almost two months was not the best idea.
But I desperately needed a break. My fingers slipped and accidentally booked a flight. Yes, accidentally.
Immediately after I booked the flight, I doubted my decision.
As a compulsive planner, I always have anxiety about making impulsive decisions. My brain tends to jump to worst-case scenarios fairly quickly. Here was my first test of letting go of that obsessive controlling behavior I have towards my money.
I’m well aware this is a stupidly privileged problem to have.
I looked at my bank account, said to myself: You have a healthy balance here. You’ve hustled and saved all these years, you can take this hit and come out of it alive.
My Travel Style
When I scroll through Instagram and watch my friends’ Instastories, I’m bombarded with travel videos and pictures that shout LUXURIOUS! right back at me. I used to work in an office where people loved to travel in style. Almost all the travel stories I hear from my colleagues and friends involved either staying in beautiful villas or eating at Michelin restaurants or shopping luxury brands.
Often, I think to myself, does the price justify the experience that they had? Was it worth it? And most importantly, did their travels contribute to their overall level of long-term happiness?
And then there’s me.
While I’m not opposed to dropping some dough at a Michelin restaurant. I don’t want to do it just for fun. I don’t want to do it just because I can. I don’t want to do it to show off to other people. I want to do it because it means something to me.
I’m a frugal person in general. But when it comes to traveling, I have a limit on how much of an experience I am willing to trade off for the sake of saving extra ringgits.
So I crafted a backpacking trip that is not-so-budget.
My goal was to have an immersive experience in the local life. I wanted to have at least a cursory understanding of how people lived in those cities. This meant roughing it out in hostels, Couchsurfing, eating street food and haggling with locals. But it also meant forking out money to cross things off my bucket list: concerts, museums, historical tours.
Okay lah, I was vague about the cost for my trip at the start of this post. No need to keep you in suspense already. Below is a breakdown of how much I spent in each category.
RM14,000 seems like an average amount you can expect from a European trip. I made some costly mistakes during the trip that inflated some of my expenses. To ease my wallet, I planned a route that combined cities that were expensive with cities that were much cheaper to travel to. A sort of city-cost-averaging, if you will.
Here are the cities I visited in chronological order and their affordability:
- Edinburgh, Scotland – $ [Arrived from KL here]
- London, UK – $$
- Amsterdam, The Netherlands – $$
- Berlin, Germany – $
- Prague, Czech Republic – $
- Budapest, Hungary – $
- Vienna, Austria – $$
- Munich, Germany – $$$
- Zurich, Switzerland – $$$ [Departed to KL from here]
($ – Affordable, $$ – Somewhat expensive, $$$ – Prepare to burn a hole in your wallet)
There weren’t many saving strategies that I used during my trip but some tricks shaved off some expenses and other mistakes I made added to my overall cost. Below is a list of all the tricks and mistakes I can think of.
Getting rid of coins. Towards the end of my trip, I offloaded as many coins as possible. I didn’t want to lose extra RM because money changers don’t accept coins. Buying things with a lot of coins can be a make for an embarrassing encounter with the cashier person but I powered through it.
On one instance, I struck up a conversation with a gentleman working at a takeaway place in Zurich. He was kind enough to take my coins, sorted them and gave me paper currency in exchange. The coins totaled up to CHF20 which was about RM80!
I chose flights that are geographically close to the destinations that I’m traveling to. I wanted to travel through cities in central Europe. Even if I didn’t know exactly where yet, Zurich was an ideal departure point because it was pretty much in the center of central Europe. The idea was that I wouldn’t be spending too much extra cash on intercity transport.
For a European trip, I looked not for the cheapest but the most cost-effective flight. This means the cheapest option with the least amount of wasted time in transit. The longer the layovers, the more likely I’d be spending money on expensive airport food. Your girl here can get real hungry, real quick.
I stayed in paid accommodation for 26 nights. Averagely this cost me about RM117.55 per night in hostels and Airbnbs. I Couchsurfed for 16 nights and spent one night on an overnight bus. Taking all this into account, my average cost per night throughout the trip was about RM71.07.
Couchsurfing is extremely unpredictable. Most hosts don’t accept requests far in advance and finding a suitable host can be difficult. To hedge (hah, finance term) against this unpredictability, I booked most of my accommodation on Hostelworld two months in advance to lock in on cheaper room rates because prices tend to rise exponentially during the summer.
Hostelworld has a free cancellation option. When I found hosts, I canceled my bookings and got back my deposits. Here, I lost about RM20 to currency exchange spreads, but I’ll take it as an insurance premium for not having to sleep in the street.
Honestly, I had the best experience Couchsurfing but I can’t say everyone else will be as lucky to meet great people through Couchsurfing.
The free account on the website limits surfers to 10 host requests per week. When unsuccessful attempts to find hosts maxed out my request limit, I ended up buying the verified account for $60 (RM248.45). After that, I can send unlimited requests to hosts. In doing so, I eventually found some really good hosts while saving quite a bit of cash.
Before committing to your host, meet with them beforehand. Grab a coffee or lunch at a public place so both of you can assess each other to see if you can hit it off.
As a single female traveler, your gut instincts are extremely powerful and important. Don’t ignore it when your gut tells you to distance yourself from a person or place.
Book Eurostar train tickets early. Two months before my trip, a Eurostar ticket from London to Amsterdam was around €45. I waited until a couple of weeks before my trip to book a ticket but it went up to a whopping €120 (my travel day also fell on a Sunday). I scrambled to find other options and had to book an Easyjet flight for £76.58. This mistake cost me an additional RM200.
Traveling between cities in Europe is a logistical nightmare. So, I need to keep track of my travel days and times pretty well. I was on top of things for most of the trip except for one time. From Prague to Budapest, I thought my 9:00 am bus was departing at 4:00 pm. Naturally, by the time I realized the mistake, the bus had already left and I had to buy a new ticket. I ended up wasting about RM221.04 for my mistake.
Travel passes and tourist passes can end up costing you more. Most European cities are extremely walkable. I lapsed on some of my research and ended up buying public transport passes which I didn’t use. I spent €31.50 unnecessarily on a 6-day travel pass in Amsterdam.
I used London Cheap Eats , TripAdvisor and local food blogs to source for cheap street food near my accommodations. I didn’t stick to a tight budget when it came to food because I really liked eating.
One of the financial pitfalls during traveling is rationalizing an increase in spending just because things are cheaper. Food prices in Eastern Europe were much cheaper than in Western Europe so I ended up having more frequent meals during the day which bloated my food expense.
Not drinking alcohol can work for or against you depending on where you are in Europe. In Munich, for example, beer is far cheaper than soda or bottled water. In Zurich, there’s no point buying bottled water because you can drink clean groundwater from the thousands of water fountains throughout the city, just be sure to carry a water bottle with you.
Tipping isn’t enforced in Europe. Different countries have different etiquette on tipping. In Munich, if you don’t tell the waiter how much you’re going to tip, expect to receive your change back in a handful of coins.
Most cities have free walking tours. While free sounds great, it’s common courtesy to tip the tour guide. For the most part, I really enjoyed these tours because the guides go to great lengths to make them interesting and I didn’t want to be that one asshole that didn’t tip. The average tip is about €10.
Doing the museum and art gallery circuit can be a tricky thing. A lot of cities offer City or Day Passes that give discounts to museums, tourist attractions and art galleries along with access to public transit systems for free. If you’re someone who can squeeze in three to four attractions and museums in a day, a City or Day Pass is worth it. I am not that kind of person.
I spend an average of four hours in one museum. Since a museum visit would end up taking up the entire afternoon for me, I usually end up paying the full price for tickets. Good news if you’re a student though! You can get a reduced price at most museums and art galleries if you show them your student ID.
My absolute favorite thing about Europe is its abundance of free public spaces. Parks, mountains, libraries, and churches can be quite a sight to see and wouldn’t cost a cent. Locals love nothing more than relaxing next to a body of water, like a lake or a river, with some beer and enjoying the sunshine. So, do as the locals do and you can save quite a bit.
Instead of buying souvenirs, I sent postcards to friends back home. It’s a much more thoughtful gift, you don’t waste luggage space carrying around extra stuff, and it’s much cheaper.
I bought a 30-day prepaid SIM card for RM140 from hello1010.my. It can be used in 60 European countries. The data speed varies from city to city, but it’s sufficient for things like checking Google Maps and Whatsapp. I found out later it’s much cheaper and easier to do this than buying a SIM card locally when you arrive in a European country.
I paid RM217.75 for a pretty standard travel insurance from MSIG. MSIG has an online application feature that makes it easier to get travel insurance.
I definitely could have done better to save more money during this particular trip. As I look at the numbers, if I was really diligent and careful, my budget easily could have come in under RM10,000.
Regardless, I don’t regret the little mishaps I made because some extraordinary encounters and important life lessons came out of it. Silver linings and all that.
I’m thinking of writing more posts about my experience visiting each city specifically. Would you be interested in reading that? If you’ve done a trip (or planning one) to Europe, what’s your travel style? What would you have done differently?